During the past year at SavorSA, we’ve run a food and dining website that doesn’t depend on high-end photography or particularly expensive equipment, at least not for me.
My camera cost less than $200. My PC is a nifty little notebook computer that cost another $200. And I didn’t need to set up a darkroom or a photo studio.
My photo studio is, for the most part, my ironing board. Because I live in a 1940s bungalow in the Jefferson area, that ironing board folds into the wall in the kitchen. When it folds down it is in a place to take advantage of the natural light that flows in from three big windows. It is also handily located near the stove and the kitchen sink.
While I’ve taken photos for every publication I’ve worked at over the past 30 years, I have never been what one might call a professional photographer. In my first journalism job, which was working as a police and courts reporter in Flagstaff, Ariz., I was the weekend photographer for four years. Being a cop reporter as well as photographer meant I kept a police scanner on my desk or in the darkroom, and I carried around a portable one.
The easy weekends were when there was some kind of mayhem or murder or major fire going on for me to shoot. (A terrible thing it was, taking such shallow delight in finding a subject for the Sunday news.)
The worst weekends were when nothing happened and I (quite inexperienced) had to drum up a feature photo for the front of the Sunday newspaper. Some of my efforts were OK, some laughable. One Sunday the best I could find was a couple reclining under a tree on a warm afternoon. On Monday there was a note on my desk from another reporter commenting on my effort: “Are those people sleeping or are they dead? I couldn’t tell.”
I loved carrying a scanner around and many times was awakened in the middle of the night to hear frenetic activity on the police bands indicating it was time to jump out of bed, grab my camera and get to my car. A couple of times this happened when the temperatures outside were 10 degrees below zero or more. On one of those frigid nights I didn’t even have to phone the cop shop to find out where the fire was. I could see a large restaurant and nightclub burning down, flames and smoke shooting into the air, just a mile away from my front door.
My first food writing assignment was cop related. One of the sergeants at the Coconino County Jail was a woman renowned for her Mexican food. I went to her house one Saturday and sat around watching her make a fabulous pork green chile and ground beef tacos. Then, I sat down with a group of deputies who’d showed up and we devoured every last bite.
This officer’s other claim to fame was her upper-body strength. Prisoners who acted up at the jail experienced first-hand her deadly “tortilla hold,” strengthened by years of kneading tortilla dough. At least, that was her story.
Partway through my cop reporter career, I pitched a sideline as restaurant reviewer to the managing editor. He loved the idea; the publisher sort of liked it. The arts editor, who handled the Weekender section, hated it. Nevertheless I began writing the column and this, too, was very fun.
Several issues into my new project, the arts editor, who sat directly across from me, looked up from proofing his pages and growled, “Walker, if you want to write a restaurant column you have to learn to spell ‘spaghetti.’ There’s a g-damn ‘h’ in it!” I liked this man, an opera buff who I knew, in his heart, secretly yearned to work the cop beat.
Seated to my right was another reporter (he was in his late 50s, so I thought he was elderly) who would get annoyed at me from time to time. I was never sure why, but I’d know about it because he’d reach into his desk, take out a giant, nasty, smelly black cigar and light it up. Then, he’d sit and blow the smoke over the top of his typewriter directly at the back of my head. Back then, nobody (but I) cared whether anyone smoked in the office.
This truly was the most fun I’ve had at any job in my life. But working on a website the past year and taking my own food photos has certainly had its moments.
The ironing board is surprisingly versatile. If I lay a long cookie sheet across it sideways and cover it with a white cloth, it makes a good backdrop. It forces me to shoot up close, so that things like nicks on the kitchen table or the cats’ water dish on the floor don’t show up. The board also swivels back and forth easily.
The only drawback might be from my husband’s point of view. He does his own ironing (bless him) and one morning unfortunately found out the hard way that I’d spilled a couple of drops of salad dressing on the ironing board. He ironed those drops directly into one of his good white shirts just before he had to get dressed and race off. This caused a reaction. I am now more careful.
Setting up the shots is also entertaining. After many years of accumulating dishes and pottery and table linens, I always have fun rummaging around in the cupboards or dining cabinets to find just the right prop. I pick up art paper at Michael’s and Herweck’s for backdrops. A couple of times I’ve taken cases off of throw pillows in the living room to use for their bright color.
I don’t kid myself that these are “important” photos, and I’ve been more proud of some than others. Recently, in order to illustrate a short article on sangrita, I had no idea what to do except shoot a few of the ingredients I had on hand and fake the others; I won’t say which or how. (The shot, at left, took about 10 minutes, start to finish.)
Another one I liked was last year’s photo of a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream melting on top of a chocolate brownie (at right). The orange dish is original Fiestaware, which I have had for many decades.
I discovered that shooting down into a bright, clean stainless steel bowl gives off many interesting reflections.
I learned (maybe for the hundredth time) that if I try to get too “witty” doing a photo illustration, it generally fails and ends up laughable. (See here my attempt to illustrate a “sleeping” wine.)
But, I like to laugh and I hope SavorSA readers do, too.